Upcoming Debate with Andrew Pitts on the Genre of the Gospels

I have been quite busy this summer with a number of professional projects and changes in my personal life. I just finished a 12,000 word academic article and moved to a new apartment, and I likewise plan to spend the remainder of the summer (which extends all the way to late-September in the UC system) working hard on my dissertation.

andrew.pittsTo keep posting new content, however, I have been scheduling debates on the Bible and Christian origins. I just posted a recording of my debate in Riverside last month on the historical reliability of the Bible, and I now have another debate to announce for this following month. On September 7th, from 5-6pm CST, I’ll be holding a debate with Christian NT scholar Andrew Pitts on the genre of the Gospels, and how the question of genre affects their historical reliability. The debate will be moderated by Evan McClanahan, who is the pastor of First Evangelical Lutheran Church, and hosts a radio debate series on topics relating to apologetics and Christianity. I’ve participated as part of McClanahan’s radio series before, when I held a debate on the dating of the Gospels with Christian NT scholar Craig Evans last year. My debate with Pitts can be listened to live at the following link:


I’ve been following Pitts’ scholarship for a number of years now, and although I don’t always agree with him, I have found his work to be helpful for my own research. In particular, I like his article “Source Citation in Greek Historiography and in Luke(-Acts),” since it lays out and organizes several of the ways that Greek historians would cite their oral and written sources.

I had the chance to meet Pitts at the annual meeting of the SBL in 2015, when he was presenting a paper for the Mark Seminar, at the same time as NT scholar Dennis MacDonald, whose presentation I summarized here. I almost ran into Pitts again during my presentation at the Pacific Coast SBL meeting in 2016, during which we were both scheduled to present as part of the NT Gospels and Acts section. I had anticipated that we were going to have a lively debate, since our two papers argued for relatively opposing views. Due to the circumstances at the time, I was actually a bit apprehensive about such a debate, not because it wouldn’t generate good dialogue, but because I was holding my dissertation prospectus defense later that day (which I successfully passed), and was thus not looking forward to defending against criticism likewise in the morning!

Pitts had to cancel his presentation for personal reasons that day, however, and thus any debate between us was postponed. During the 2017 Pacific Coast SBL meeting, Pitts resubmitted the same paper, and, although I was scheduled to present for a different section, I was planning to attend the NT Gospels and Acts section in order hear his presentation and perhaps pose some critical questions. This time for personal reasons on my end, however, I had to cancel my presentation for the 2017 meeting and did not attend.

For a couple of years now, therefore, I have been anticipating a debate between Pitts and myself, and it thus makes sense that we will be holding this radio debate in September. I anticipate that it will be far more technical and nuanced than my debate last month, and so I look forward to a constructive dialogue.

keenerIn the meantime, I want to post an update about four apologetic books that have been on my radar, but which I have been too busy to write reviews of. The first two deal with ancient biography, which is one of my areas of specialization: Craig Keener’s Biographies and JesusWhat Does It Mean for the Gospels to Be Biographies?, and Mike Licona’s Why Are There Differences in the Gospels?What We Can Learn from Ancient Biography. I think both books have their emphasis off in focusing on elite biographers, such as Plutarch and Suetonius, even though I consider the Gospels to actually be far more similar to popular-novelistic biographies, which I have discussed previously on this blog (here and here). I’ve been critical of some of Keener’s generic arguments about the Gospels in this previous article that I published (footnote 10), and regarding Licona’s book, Michael Kochenash (an alumnus from Claremont with whom I’ve corresponded previously) wrote in a recent review:

Art of Biography“[S]ome readers may also find it curious that Licona’s book lacks an engagement with several important classics scholars, most notably Tomas Hägg (The Art of Biography in Antiquity, Cambridge University Press, 2012). Accordingly, I expect that such readers—though appreciative of Licona’s contribution—will desire greater nuance. David Konstan and Robyn Walsh, for example, identify two different tendencies within ancient biographies: a civic tradition—which foregrounds the subject’s personality and moral character—and a subversive tradition—which foregrounds the subject’s wit using conversations and anecdotes (“Civic and Subversive Biography in Antiquity,” Writing Biography in Greece and Rome: Narrative Technique and Fictionalization, Cambridge University Press, 2016, 26-43). Konstan and Walsh locate Plutarch’s Lives in the former tradition—among the likes of Suetonius—and the Gospels in the latter, along with the Life of Homer, the Life of Aesop, and the Alexander Romance. Licona, however, does not acknowledge the distinction between Plutarch’s historiographical tone and the Gospels’ novelistic tone.”

Lydia McGrewThe other two apologetic books are Lydia McGrew’s Hidden in Plain View: Undesigned Coincidences in the Gospels and Acts, and Craig Blomberg’s The Historical Reliability of the New TestamentCountering the Challenges to Evangelical Christian Beliefs. McGrew’s arguments about “undesigned coincidences” in the Gospels/Acts, as far as I am aware, have not been subjected to secular peer-review nor presented at professional organizations like the SBL. I have seen Internet apologists circulate the “undesigned coincidences” claim, however, and so I have been in correspondence with philosopher of religion Evan Fales about how to counter this slogan. Regarding Blomberg, I’ve countered his arguments about the authorship of the Gospels (here) and historical reliability of the Gospels (here) previously on this blog. 

There is a lot of money in Christianity and an in-built audience of readers, and so I’m not in the least bit surprised that apologetic books continue to be published, even though I don’t think that they generally meet the standards of ancient historical and Classical scholarship outside the Bible. I hope that others will take the time to write critical reviews of these books, however, and I plan to write reviews of my own when time permits with my busy schedule.

-Matthew Ferguson

Posted in Announcements | Tagged , | 6 Comments

Riverside Panel Debate about the Historical Reliability of the Bible

Alright, the recording of my panel debate in Riverside last month is now available online. Since there were some issues that arose with the video recording, I’ve decided to only upload the audio recording onto the blog. You can listen to it below:

I prepared PowerPoint slides for the debate, a few of which came up during the discussion (all of the slides, including those not brought up in the debate, can be accessed here). I was the only speaker to use PP slides during the debate, so no other material is being missed, if I include the relevant slides (with time markers) below.

At 18:55 during the recording, slide 101 was posted:

Slide 101

At 21:35 and 1:04:38, slide 113 was posted:

Slide 113

At 22:14, slide 106 was posted:

Slide 106

At 1:18:19, slide 108 was posted:

Slide 108

At 1:27:35, slide 109 was posted:

Slide 109

At 1:34:10, slide 104 was posted:

Slide 104

At 1:39:15, slide 118 was posted:

Slide 118

At 1:51:43, slide 119 was posted:

Slide 119

Overall, I think that the debate went well, and I was for the most part pleased with the performance on the skeptical side of the panel.

On the believer side of the panel, you may notice that the two speakers defended the historical reliability of the Old Testament, as literarily interpreted, in asserting things like the existence of a worldwide flood. They also defended a YEC creationist cosmology. I normally debate apologists who shy away from such claims, and instead focus on the New Testament, in defending things like the historicity Jesus’ resurrection. So this is the first debate I’ve had with the more creationist type.

There are two points during the debate, where I was speaking impromptu, that I would like to add clarification to:

The first is that at around 1:06:45 in the discussion, I made a small quibble regarding the end of the Gospel of John. NT scholars often consider chapter 21 of the gospel to be a later appendix to the text, on the grounds that John 20:30-31 seems to show signs of an original ending. During the debate, however, I said that the last “couple chapters” of John may be a later addition. This is incorrect. Rather, the last couple chapters show signs of two different endings, which suggests that the final chapter (21) is a later appendix. I had included discussion of this correctly on my blog in this previous essay (footnote 31), but I jumbled the description a bit during my oral presentation.

The second issue pertains to a point of comparison I made with the textual criticism of the New Testament and the Athenian orator Demosthenes, at a couple points during the debate:

What I was trying to emphasize is that the manuscripts of the New Testament often reveal interpolations (or variant readings between manuscripts) that are atypical of Classical texts. These can include things like titles added to the names of individuals, such as a variation of Mark 1:1 in which the title “son of God” is added to Jesus’ name, but is not included in all manuscripts.

Also noteworthy are variant readings that seem to have theological significance. For example, Hebrews 2:9 may have original read that Jesus died “apart from God” (χωρίς), as opposed to “by the grace of God” (χάρις). Although a difference only between two letters–omega and alpha–such a variant may have significant theological implications. Stating that Jesus died “apart from God” may be an echo of Jesus’ last words in Mark (15:34) and Matthew (27:46). To what degree the variant affects one’s views of Christian theology, I think, is just that: a matter of theology. But what I was emphasizing is that such a variant can have “theological significance,” regardless of how theologians choose to interpret it.

Finally, there are variations between the NT manuscripts that have historical-critical implications. For example, the longer ending in Mark 16:9-20 is not found in all manuscripts, which is historically significant, because if this passage is excluded there are no descriptions of Jesus’ post-mortem appearances in the Gospel of Mark. That means that such details are only found in the later gospels, which could reflect growing legendary development.

That said, I think that Demosthenes was a problematic point of comparison here (and I wish that I had used another Classical author as an example). Part of the problem is that scholars dispute whether the actual speeches spoken by Demosthenes during oration were the same as those later written down in text. Another issue is that, although Demosthenes’ speeches don’t usually have things akin to the theological variants, which I discussed in the NT manuscripts above, we often have more dispute over his exact wording. This is in part due to the fact that the language of Demosthenes is more complex than the NT, and also because we only have later manuscripts of his speeches available. When it comes to the matter of interpolation, also, there are certain passages in Demosthenes that may be later additions, added for rhetorical purpose, which undermine the notion that his speeches were transmitted as static texts.

I regret using Demosthenes as a point of comparison, therefore, since comparing the textual criticism of his speeches to those of the NT may be a matter of apples and oranges. Another issue when considering NT manuscripts in comparison to Classical manuscripts is that, although there are a lot of variant readings between the NT manuscripts, we often have a better chance at getting back to the original, since the multiplicity of manuscripts can expose where verses/passages were tampered with. When we lack the same multiplicity of Classical manuscripts, scholars often have to be more conjectural at approximating the original reading. But that being said, the point remains that the NT was hardly a case of static transmission, since scribes seem to have changed it at several points of transmission, which are significant for theological and historical criticism.

Other than those two points, however, I was overall pleased with my performance, and hope that readers of the blog enjoy the debate.

-Matthew Ferguson

Posted in Debates | 2 Comments

Reminder about the Riverside Panel Debate this Upcoming Sunday (7/9/17)

As a reminder, I will be speaking on a debate panel at Riverside, CA, this Sunday (7/9/17), from 1:30-4:30 PM, in the community room of Louis Robidoux Library. The panel is part of a debate series called “Believers and Nonbelievers in Discussion.” The topic of the panel will be the historical reliability of the Bible, and there will be two panelists (believers and skeptics) on each side.

Screenshot 2017-04-19 at 3.27.58 PM

If you are near the Riverside area, you can check out the debate in person (which is free and does not require an RSVP). Otherwise, a video will be uploaded on YouTube afterward, which I will post here on Κέλσος. You can read more about the group hosting the event on the following Facebook page:


I hope that I get to meet some of the fans of this blog at the event!

-Matthew Ferguson

Posted in Announcements | 4 Comments

New Civitas Humana Post on the Craig/Ehrman Debate about the Evidence for Jesus’ Resurrection

I’ve been eager to blog some new substantive content for a while now, but have unfortunately been delayed due to a variety of unforeseen personal and professional reasons. Over the last two days, however, I’ve managed managed to crank out a rather lengthy (over 11,000 word!) essay evaluating the Craig/Ehrman debate on the resurrection of Jesus (the transcript of which can be read here). The debate happened over a decade ago (March 2006), but since then it’s been one of the more controversial resurrection debates, with each side claiming their speaker made a stronger case.


I’ve decided to post my discussion of the debate on Civitas Humana, since it focuses primarily on Craig’s critique of Ehrman’s probability arguments against miracles (and thus, on philosophy of probability). Civ has likewise been on hiatus for a while now due to the schedule delays I mentioned above, so I wanted to give it some fresh blood. The essay can be read at the link below:

“Understanding the Spirit vs. the Letter of Probability”

The essay will also be of interest to readers of Κέλσος, since it discusses matters such as Craig’s variation of the “minimal facts” apologetic, resurrection apologetics, epistemology of ancient history, the historical reliability of Paul’s letters and the Gospels, and philosophy of miracles (all subjects that are discussed frequently on this blog). I don’t normally write debate reviews (and my essay isn’t really a point-by-point break down), but I think the Craig/Ehrman debate raised some useful points that will help to discuss how to effectively respond to resurrection apologetics.

Not surprisingly, I thought that Ehrman made a stronger case during the debate (though I’m biased), particularly with regard to alternative (naturalistic or non-paranormal) explanations being more probable than the resurrection hypothesis. But, I do think that Craig scored a technical point in critiquing the validity of some of Ehrman’s logic on probability, and in the essay I offer some suggestions for how to respond to Craig’s critique.

If you have comments pertaining to the essay, please post them on Civ and not here. Otherwise, if you have comments relating to recent matters on Κέλσοςfeel free to post them below. I’m hoping to start up a new philosophy podcast series on Civ later this year (which I will announce here if it gets off the ground). Hopefully this podcast series will bring the sister-blog of this site back to regular activity. Stay tuned!

-Matthew Ferguson

Posted in Apologists, Historical Jesus, Miracles, Philosophy, Resurrection, Science | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

New (Discretionary) Comment Policy

I’ve decided to add a new comment policy for certain situations where I think a particular person commenting should be more transparent about his or her own identity. This policy won’t apply in all situations and will be applied on a discretionary basis.

Here is the policy:

When requested, I will require certain people who comment to provide all of the following information:

  1. A real first and last name in the name box (not a pseudonym like “Papas Fritas” or something).
  2. A social media account (e.g., Facebook or Google+), professional networking account (e.g., Academia.edu or LinkedIn), or personal/professional website, which lists the same name provided in the name box.
    • In certain instances, I will further require that the linked website has a facial photograph of you. Such a photograph must come from a website of restricted access (e.g., a work or university profile), and not a website like Facebook, since such photos can merely be uploaded and might not be your own.
  3. An email address that matches at least the first initial and the full last name provided in the name box. Please note the following:
    • The same email address must appear on the social media account, professional networking account, or website, and be visible to public view.
    • The email address must come from a server of restricted access (e.g., a work or university email address). Otherwise, someone can create a fake email address on AOL or Yahoo and apply it to someone else’s name and website.
    • I will send a confirmation email to this address, to which you must reply, in order to confirm that you are not simply posting an email address that actually belongs to someone else.

I am making this requirement (in certain instances), so that both myself and the readers of this blog can know the real identity of certain individuals who comment. Situations in which I might want to know someone’s real identity include (but are not limited to):

  • The same person has been posting comments for a long time (and while not explicitly violating the Comment Policy) has in one way or another been irritating myself or other people commenting on the blog.
  • A person claims to have academic credentials, but posts under a pseudonym (in this kind of scenario I may specifically require a link to a profile on a university website, or at least an Academia.edu account).
  • A comment thread has been dragging on for a while, and I eventually want to know the identity of the person who is participating in it.
  • A person asks a question that will require a considerable amount of time and energy for me to respond. In such a situation, I may require the person to post such information, so that I can at least know the identity of the individual asking the question.
  • A person posts a particularly rude or inflammatory comment, which reflects poorly on his or her character, and then tries to hide behind a pseudonym. To be sure, most such comments will violate the Comment Policy, and most will be deleted (without acknowledgement). But every now and again one comes along, where I think the individual illustratively deserves to be called out. In such instances, I will temporarily block the comment (but still make its posting visible to public view), and then challenge the individual to provide his or her personal information (usually with a photograph). I will then see if they have the courage to do so. I doubt many will actually have such courage, but we’ll see.

Comments that are probably safe from this (discretionary) policy generally include the following:

  • People who do not provide their names, but who have been commenting here for a while, and who have generally behaved in a civil fashion (this applies to all ends of the spectrum, as far as theological beliefs are concerned).
  • A comment (from a person who is posting for the first time) that is generally civil and substantive in terms of its content, and doesn’t drag on for too long in the discussion thread.
  • Short comments, which only offer minor contributions to the post they are under, or simply include things like “good post” or “congrats” or “get well soon,” which generally don’t generate much more discussion.
  • Someone whose identity I know, even if they post under a pseudonym, and who would normally be willing to identify him or herself, if another person asked.
  • Any comment or thread that (for one reason or another) I don’t think the identity of the person commenting is terribly pertinent to the substance of the discussion.

I’m adding this policy because there have been a handful of instances over the years where I have wondered, as someone working toward my PhD in an academic field, whether I should spend my time interacting with certain individuals who don’t even post under their real identities. Now I have a policy in place to make sure that they do, or that they stop commenting.

I anticipate that most people who comment will be unaffected by this policy.

-Matthew Ferguson

Posted in Announcements | Tagged | 4 Comments

More Sad News: I’ve Lost My Best Friend

As I’ve discussed previously on this blog, 2016 was a royally crappy year, but 2017 is proving to be an utterly shitty one (I personally don’t like to cuss on this blog, but on seldom occasions it is justified). I mentioned in an earlier post how my sister died in February of this year, and now most recently, during the last few days of May (as I was moving out of my house in Pasadena), I lost my beloved feline son, and best friend, Sebastian. Both Camille and I are shocked, devastated, and feel so, so, so lonely.

Sebastian’s death came as the eye of the storm in a hurricane of other crap that was going on in our lives at the time. We were both moving out of our house (which I am sure almost everyone can relate to as an exhausting experience), I was working on a paper to submit to a peer-reviewed volume (which I am sure most scholars can relate to as an exhausting experience), and Cam was about to begin a work retreat (where she is now), away from our new home, which is currently an un-setup apartment (which I am sure many professionals can relate to as an exhausting experience).

We have been so fucking busy (pardon my French), that this is the first time that I have even had a chance to write Sebastian’s obituary.


The saga of how I adopted him was something of a miracle. While I was living with my old roommate in AZ, we had two cats–one of whom also sadly passed away recently this year (fuck you, 2017!)–and I grew to love both of them. I lived alone in Irvine during the first year of my PhD program, and Cam wouldn’t move out with me to SoCal for another year. I was feeling rather lonely. One day while walking to a seminar, I noticed a friendly orange cat sitting on the sidewalk (whom I later learned was named Jacks), and he was kind enough to let me pet him.

I decided that I wanted a kitty of my own, and so I started to check out some local rescues. I was accepted into seven Classics PhD programs when I started my doctoral studies, and I had to choose UC Irvine to even be in the right location to find Sebastian in the first place. When I was looking at his rescue’s website, there were pictures of probably a hundred cats or so. Sebastian’s photo stood out to me because there was something a little off about him (he was slightly cross-eyed). His profile said that he liked to meow to get attention, and boy did that later turn out to be true!

I know that we all love our pets, but Sebastian was especially close to me for several very deep reasons. Even now he is still giving me so many gifts and so much love. I have never met such a wonderful little critter. I incessantly worked to convince the rescue (who thought that he was un-adoptable) that he was a perfect choice for a pet, and eventually after weeks let them take him home with me.

This year has taught me much about how life is finite, and you can never take any day with your loved ones for granted. I never expected that my sister would pass away at age 30, and I thought I would have more time in life to connect with her. Sebastian lived to be 8 years old, which is young age for a cat to pass away, but Cam and I gave him 5 very wonderful years, full of love, fun, and discovery.

Sebastian was always a very intense cat. Because of his eyesight, he had difficulty doing things that most cats would have less trouble with. He could never jump up onto the kitchen counter, and instead he found ways to crawl up on the stove (we had to put safety locks on the buttons), or he would make daring leaps from the adjacent kitchen table. I think Sebastian got twice the experience out of life as an ordinary cat, because every part of the world was like a puzzle that he was solving.


Sebastian liked to climb the trees in our front yard. It was amazing how he was very limited with short-vision tasks, but he had no problem with climbing tall trees, when he could plot out a course, and then leap up on them. We never had to worry about Sebastian getting lost or not coming down. Sebastian trusted us so much that he would just jump back down when we called him. He virtually never hissed, and he was an extremely gentle fellow.

In the 5 years that I had Sebastian, he transformed from being a scared, huddled down, and quite cat, which the rescue thought was too difficult to be adopted into a family. Once I had the chance to work with him, though, he quickly became closely attached to me, and then started to be very excited and curious. When we were moving out of the house, our other cat (Sneakers) would hide in the cabinets, whenever we brought prospective renters over to see the property. But Sebastian (after all the concerns the rescue had for him) would just sit peacefully on the kitchen counter, and let complete strangers walk up and pet him.

Sebastian had a good life, even if it was shorter than Cam and I would have liked. He got 5 years of being an utterly spoiled cat, in a large house where he could climb trees and explore the world. Cam and I miss him deeply, but at least we know that he spent all the time to the end of his days in happiness. Even when he was euthanized at the animal hospital, Sebastian was purring in his last moments before passing away. He lived a fortunate life all the way to the end.

I miss Sebastian greatly, but I will always treasure the 5 years he gave me with his cute and quirky company. He was one of the most blessed and kind creatures that I have ever known…

-Matthew Ferguson

Posted in Musings | Tagged | 5 Comments

A Brief Status Update for the Summer

I have been super busy with both academic and personal work lately, and so I just want to give a brief status update about my (apparent) absence from the blog.

First off, if you don’t see new posts from me, that doesn’t mean that I am not adding new content. I regularly add footnotes and new material to old essays (as well as answering comments), and so this is a heavily tailored blog. I tend to write long essays on specific topics, rather than short blog posts, and to beef them up over time.

Most of my page views come from Google searches and not new posts, and so the blog is still getting a lot of new material out there. I want to clarify this, especially since I have some people supporting me on Patreon, and I don’t want to give the impression that I’m not active on the blog. I plan to add some new posts in June, but still have a lot of work to get done in the near future.

I just moved out of my house to a new apartment yesterday, which was exhausting, and, very sadly, my cat Sebastian has been in the hospital. I’ve also got an academic deadline to meet soon which has kept me quite busy. I’ve likewise still been facing health issues with my insomnia, and so I’m going to go back for treatment this month, but I will still have access to the Internet.

I appreciate everyone who reads this blog, both secular and religiously affiliated alike. I can’t wait to one day get my PhD, hopefully find a decent job, and to continue providing good information for the public to learn about the ancient world and philosophy. But I also can sometimes burn myself out.

I’ll be working at a gradual pace this month, and I have an exciting new announcement that I should be posting soon. I hope that everyone is enjoying their summer. Stay healthy and safe! These last couple years have been tough on a lot of us! What matters is that we look out for ourselves and each other.

Pax vobiscum,

Matthew Ferguson

Posted in Announcements | 4 Comments